Ben's Chili Bowl, photo courtesy Ben's Chili BowlA friend’s upcoming visit to Washington, D.C. brought back memories of my six weeks there back in 2001. Yes, that 2001, it was when I was working for FEMA and was called to headquarters after the September 11 attacks.

The city was pretty quiet when I got there shortly after the FAA decided that airline flights could resume. By that time, everybody who could get out of D.C. did. Tourists exited, conventions canceled, lobbyists went to wherever they go. Auto traffic was way down but still snarled because of streets that were blocked off for security. I got back home on Halloween.

Our work group went out for lunch one day, walking over to the Ford House Office Building cafeteria. A few hours later, the anthrax episode unfolded; I had a day off the next day and stumbled into the news conference where Congressional leaders announced they would be leaving town en-masse for the first time since the War of 1812 or something.

I stayed part of the time at the Homewood Suites at Thomas Circle, which I found out was on the site of the German embassy up to World War II. Walking the same sidewalk as Nazi officials gave me the creeps, but that’s Washington. There’s a great little book called On This Spot that tells what’s been where over the years.

But that’s another story. In my six weeks or so there, I was able to explore a remarkable American city, seeing some of the off-the-beaten path sites. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl and “the Black Broadway,” 1213 U St. NW. Locals at FEMA HQ said I had to check out Ben’s, a Washington legend for not only its great chili and snack-bar fare, but the history. We’re the same age (both opened in 1958). Ben’s story goes that Ben and Virginia Ali opened their café down the street from the Washington Senators’ home at Griffith Stadium and in the middle of the night clubs, theaters and restaurants that catered to Washington’s African-American elite. Read more about the history on Ben’s website, but just know that over the years, the narrow restaurant in an old building turned into one of those where-the-elite-meet-to-eat places. Photos of political and entertainment celebs dot the walls. And the food ain’t bad either. I’m not usually big on chili dogs, but I tried the chili smokes and it’s worth the trip. It reminded me of the Beefmaster, a skinny greasy spoon that used to be in the old California Theater in downtown San Diego. Griffith Stadium is gone; the Howard University Hospital is now on its site and many of the clubs and theaters from the Black Broadway days are also history. The city has a walking tour through the area, well marked with frequent signs, that will take visitors on a great experience.
  • Maine Avenue Fish Market, 1100 Maine Ave. SW. Outdoor markets are few and far between and this one is the oldest. Predating even the (now moved) Fulton Fish Market in New York, Washington’s Maine Avenue market dates to very early in the 19th century. Nearly buried under Interstate 395, it’s about as waterfront as the Southwest Waterfront can get. Fish on ice as far as the eye can see, it still retains its original seafood glory, not succumbing to tourist-trap status as have similar markets in San Francisco and Seattle. You can grab something live or cooked here as a snack. For something a bit more developed, walk a ways to the local Phillips restaurant, 900 Water St. SW, flagship of a family-owned chain in the mid-Atlantic region. When I visited, it was a rather cool day so I skipped the chowder on the street for the comfort of the Phillips dining room.
  • Stan’s Restaurant, 1029 Vermont Ave NW. I remember my steak being OK, but not great, but it was just the ambiance of the place. Downstairs in a brownstone, red leather booths, small bar, just so Swanky D.C. This was before the martini boom, but I bet they serve a great one.
  • DuPont Circle. I can’t remember the place I ate here, but the area is packed with restaurants and clubs. Check it out.
  • Ford House Office Building Cafeteria, 416 3rd Street SW. The food wasn’t anything to write home about — and yes, it its a pick-up-your-own-food cafeteria — but for a yokel from San Diego it was fun to sit down among all the well-dressed folks at the hub of Our Nation’s Government. I hope when you visit there’s no anthrax threat.
  • Eastern Market, 225 7th St SE. Another back-to-the-past market, this one boasts it is the oldest outdoor fresh food market in the city, although it’s a couple of years newer than the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Oh well; they’re all really old. A variety of merchants have a variety of eats available, along with other goodies. I walked over from the Metro station, then walked back to Capitol Hill (and into the we’re leaving Washington congressional news conference).

Other stuff: I visited an old friend in charming old town Arlington; the Newseum and Holocaust Museums are a must as are as many of the Smithsonians you can get to. When you’re checking out the clubs, shops and cafes in Georgetown, be sure to look for the canals. Those were the high-tech transportation corridors of their day and one reason why Georgetown was there before Washington, D.C.

There’s also a whole list of things I want to do when I get back there one day. Bianca, wish I was going with you on your trip; have a great time!

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